Friday, April 04, 2008

In Which I Predict the Demise of Pop Culture in the Year 2395

Like a snake eating its own tail, pop culture feeds on itself.
Until recently, this has been a good thing — it’s a natural recycling or mulching process that nourishes the soil in which our beloved pop grows. One obvious example is The Simpsons, which has generated almost 400 episodes’ worth of amazing material by satirizing just about every movie, book and work of music from the past 50 years. Another is the practice of sampling, which has given new life to artists from Atlantic Starr to ZZ Top. One could go on and on.
But, like a scientist witnessing the collapse of arctic ice shelves, I’ve become alarmed by the rate at which pop culture is cannibalizing itself. The warning signs are everywhere...
In the world of film: Movie producers have run out of comic books and TV shows to adapt. Having already worked through Spiderman, Superman and Batman several times over, they’ve now turned to lesser superheroes like Daredevil, Elektra and the Fantastic Four. Likewise, having already adapted Star Trek, The Muppet Show and The Fugitive, they’ve now resorted to Miami Vice, The Dukes of Hazzard and Starsky & Hutch.
In the world of TV: Ever since the infamous “Poochie” episode, The Simpsons (my personal yardstick of television quality, if you haven’t already guessed) has been parodying itself as much as it parodies the culture at large. Meanwhile, spin-offs seem to be increasingly prevalent. CSI: Pittsburgh, anyone?
In the world of music: Despite the trappings of experimentation, the indie darlings of the recent past — like Wilco, the White Stripes and the Strokes — can best be described as revivalists. They feast on old bones — classic rock, garage rock and New York avant garde, respectively — and regurgitate them a new yet recognizable form. Contemporary R&B, if it’s possible, is even worse, trapped in some kind of backwards-gazing time warp. Alicia Keys, John Legend and D’Angelo, while talented, are beating a dead horse.
Yes, just as an old sailor can feel a storm approaching in his bum knee, I can sense that pop culture is in danger of exhausting itself. But the scientist in me was not content with mere anecodotal evidence. So I sought a metric by which to measure this phenomenon.
For years, I struggled to develop a formula. The number of channels on cable divided by the number of quality shows at any given time? The number of original movies released in a year that are not sequels or adaptations of another movie, book or TV show divided by the total number of movies? The number of reunion tours — the Police, Van Halen, Duran Duran, the Eagles, Dinosaur Jr. — divided by the number of non-reunion tours? Nothing seemed to work.
Then one day, like Newton getting beaned on the head by an apple, inspiration struck when I heard a country song called “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.”
“That’s it!” I thought to myself. “I will measure the exhaustion of pop culture by calculating the acceleration of the rate at which pop culture memes migrate from the world of hip-hop to the world of country music! Brilliant!”
First popularized in a 2004 episode of Chappelle’s Show, the term badonkadonk was plundered within a year by Trace Adkins in his “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” song, released in 2005. Velocity equals one migration per year.
But to calculate acceleration, I would need velocity at some point in the past. Easy. It took 12 years for How Ya Like Me Now?, the 1987 album by Kool Moe Dee, to morph into the Toby Keith album of the same name, released in 1999. Velocity in 1999 equals one migration every 12 years.
Once I had my two velocities, it was easy to calculate the rate of acceleration:
acceleration = v2005 – v1999 / time
acceleration = ((1 migration / year) – (0.083 migrations / year)) / 7 years
acceleration = 0.131 migrations per year squared
From there, I could predict the future rate at which pop culture will cannibalize itself. The trend is alarming:
But how fast is too fast? At what rate do the wheels come off? How much longer can pop culture continue to eat its own before it dies?
In physics, the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, is the considered the “speed limit” of the universe. The analogous speed limit in pop culture, I would argue, is one self-reference per week. VH-1’s Best Week Ever represents the outer limit of pop culture cannibalization, the event horizon of meta-tude. Were it to ever become Best Six Days Ever, the whole thing would simply collapse upon itself.
If we continue at our current pace, this collapse will take place in the year 2395. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
And yes, I’m aware I have far too much time on my hands. But I actually care about this stuff.


Jim said...

Your reasoning is both brilliant and terrifying, sir, and makes me weep for the future. What a grim, colorless world this will be by about the year 2318 or so.

Jim said...

Dude, I really hope you saw last night's Simpsons episode; it would provide much grist for your mill (though it might require a complicated recalibration of your acceleration formula).